INTERVIEW

Obaro Ejimiwe requesting that we meet at Tate Britain only confirms how differently he approaches things compared to most young musicians, and, in turn, how his year has been quite unlike anyone else’s.

Photography by Dan Kendall

Photography by Dan Kendall

MY 2011: HOW RAPPING THE BLUES EARNED OBARO EJIMIWE A MERCURY PRIZE NOMINATION

Obaro Ejimiwe requesting that we meet at Tate Britain only confirms how differently he approaches things compared to most young musicians, and, in turn, how his year has been quite unlike anyone else’s featured in our top albums list. We find him sat in the museum’s café, a first time visitor who’s finally found the time to make it to the River Thames’ Millbank. It’s hard to fit these trips in when, off the back of your debut album, you’re touring with Metronomy, playing festivals and shows across the UK and Europe, performing on Later… With Jools Holland alongside Peter Gabriel and being courted by the Mercury Music Prize.

‘Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’ is an impressively mellow British hip-hop record that skips the usual swagger and instead takes everyday monotony and makes it woozily seductive. The raps are mumbled in Obaro’s unmistakeable, tranquilised tone and the homemade beats and orchestrations combine elements of indie, electronica, trance and dance, all at half-speed – “the music I’m a fan of,” he says.

A little over a year ago Obaro was working a nine-to-five job and piecing together his debut album by night. He’d moved to South London from Coventry and describes it as “an eventful time in my life generally; an important time, and important for this record, because if I didn’t have so much going on it might have come out sounding different.” Last night he was watching E4 when he saw a trailer for new drama Top Boy. It was sound-tracked by ‘Finished I Ain’t’, his own song.

“Yeah, 2011 has been a positive step in the right direction,” he nods. “My headline gig at the Scala was particularly amazing, just to fill it up and see so many people know my music and be interested enough to come and pay to see me play, that was amazing. And playing Jools Holland was a highlight as well.”

Nothing quite propelled the success of ‘Peanut Butter Blues…’ like Ghostpoet’s Mercury Price nomination though. Looking back on it, Obaro explains how the whole Mercury saga unfolds each year, with the nominees being told they’ve been short-listed when we the public are. “It’s all very cloak-and-dagger,” he says. “It’s like being opened up to a secret world that you never knew existed. It was all a bit of a haze really, a bit mad. But that was the beginning of the Mercury whirlwind.”

Obaro’s friends got to him before the Mercury people did, congratulating him via text for a nomination he didn’t know he had. He was then summoned to the The Hospital Club, Covent Garden, and pushed in front of twenty interviewers.

“That day happened and then it was a case of, ‘Okay, we’ve got to get back on with what we’re doing’. You have to not get consumed by it, because you can easily get caught up with it, finding out who else has been nominated and what the odds are etc. I did indulge a little bit, but I did just get on with it, and it’s only after the Mercury night that you realise just how much it takes over your life. You’re forced to think about it more than you might like to. It was an interesting bubble to be in, and weirdly so, it was nice when it was over. It was like you’re watching television for a month straight and then someone turns it off, and you’re like, ‘oh, shit, there’s a world around me.’

“It was a relief to have done it, and for it to be over, and to have not won it. I always said in every interview that I didn’t expect to win it, and it was a relief to have been part of it but to have not won the ultimate accolade, because if you’re a new artist that wins it, it’s expected that everything you then touch turns to gold, and if it doesn’t you’re vilified for that.”

I ask Obaro if he put a bet on himself to win anyway, predicting the spluttered “No way, I’d never do that” that I get as an answer. Arrogance doesn’t become him, which is exactly what makes ‘Peanut Butter Blues…’ such an appealing and uniquely modest hip-hop album – never self-deprecating, but not quite aware of how good it is either.

“I never thought about how it would be received or if it would be in the end of year lists,” says Obaro, “so it’s a great bonus to a great year. But for me, I’m just thinking of the future and what I’m going to produce in the future. There’s no rule. It’s like being here at Tate Britain, looking at this art, you realise there are no rules; you can do what you want. I knew that anyway, but after this year I’m more aware of it.”

By Stuart Stubbs

Originally published in issue 33 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2011.

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